Sheriff urges Aspen-area river runners to use extreme caution, homeowners to stay aware |

Sheriff urges Aspen-area river runners to use extreme caution, homeowners to stay aware

Pete Thomas kayaks through Entrance Exam rapid on the Roaring Fork River in May 2018.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Emergency responders in the Roaring Fork Valley don’t want to cry wolf but they do want residents to prepare for high water and the possibility of flooding over the next two weeks.

The Roaring Fork River near Aspen is currently flowing below average, but warmer temperatures and an ample snowpack at high elevations are a recipe for a drastic increase, according to Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo.

“I think a week of 70s and 80s, that could really change,” he said.

DiSalvo and Pitkin County Emergency Manager Valerie MacDonald said there could be flooding in parts of the river and major stream drainages that haven’t experienced it before.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky but we’re preparing for the worst.” — Valerie MacDonald, Pitkin County Emergency Manager

“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” MacDonald said, “but we’re preparing for the worst.”

Another concern is flooding caused by tree trunks, limbs and debris moved by multiple avalanches in all major valleys.

Pitkin County has a multi-jurisdictional Incident Management Team prepared for activation in case it is needed, MacDonald said. Others jurisdictions in the valley have been holding regular meetings on flood and mud flow preparedness.

The Roaring Fork’s flow near Aspen was at 334 cubic feet per second Thursday compared with the average of 406 cfs. It was at 2.85 feet Friday. The flood stage is 5 feet.

But there’s still a lot of snow to melt. The snowpack in the Upper Colorado River headwaters, which includes the Roaring Fork basin, is 715% of the median, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Temperatures are forecast to warm up Tuesday through Thursday, according to a streamflow forecast issued June 6 by the National Weather Service office in Grand Junction.

“It is possible for the high elevation snowpack to produce large flows,” said the report by meteorologist Aldis Strautins. “Expect peak flows next week at some locations with sustained high flows.”

The Roaring Fork River and the Crystal River are among those on the “rivers of interest” list for the weather service. “Elevated awareness should continue” into next week, the report said. “River forecasts are high but not reaching flood stage for most locations.”

DiSalvo and MacDonald said their immediate concern is for people using the rivers and streams for recreation. The sheriff urged people going on the river to go with a commercial rafting company with certified guides rather than going on their own. One person died this week when a raft, which was a private group and did not have a guide, overturned on the Eagle River.

MacDonald said people checking out rivers and streams should be aware of unstable banks.

The sheriff’s office aims to build awareness of conditions in coming days. It appears people are well-aware of the potential for big water, MacDonald said. A flood preparedness meeting hosted in Redstone on Wednesday night by the Carbondale Fire Department attracted more than 60 residents, MacDonald said.

A meeting will be held Monday specifically on the risk of flooding and debris flows from the Lake Christine Fire burn scar.

In Basalt, the police department is monitoring the rivers on a daily basis and getting weekly updates on forecasts from the National Weather Service, according to Police Chief Greg Knott. The department also is regularly communicating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which controls releases from the Ruedi Reservoir dam. The agency wants to fill the reservoir without sending too much water down the lower Frying Pan River and inundating riverside properties.

The reclamation bureau increased releases Friday by 50 cfs to 421 cfs. Flooding generally occurs above 975 cfs.

Ruedi Reservoir is about 67% full.

MacDonald said in case of flooding anywhere in the county, public works and other public agencies will focus on protecting public infrastructure. Private homeowners concerned about flooding of their property must make their own arrangements for laying sandbags or taking other action. That policy is true for Basalt, as well.

“People need to fortify or protect their private property if they feel it’s necessary,” Knott said.

The town will not provide sand or bags. He advised people to get supplies from lumberyards or hardware stores, or hire a contractor.

MacDonald noted the drastic change in the Roaring Fork Valley compared with last year. While runoff is the concern now, drought was tightening its grip a year ago. Pitkin County adopted stage one fire restrictions June 12 last year.

“Every year we’re dealing with one or the other,” MacDonald said.

Next year the county might have to plan for locusts, DiSalvo quipped.

The frustrating part of this summer is the unknown factors — temperatures, cloud cover and precipitation.

“Remember: How all this snow might melt off is very weather dependent,” Strautins wrote in his forecast report.